Tips for Packing the Perfect Cooler

Summer wouldn’t be complete without a backyard barbecue, camping trip or visit to the beach. All three scenarios are equally fun and require some of the same gear. A cooler, for example, is one item you won’t want to forget whether you’re in the yard, the woods or the sand. It helps keep your favorite beverages ice cold and ensures that your food is safe to eat no matter how hot it gets. But if you don’t pack it right, you might end up with soggy sandwiches or lukewarm sodas. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your cooler this summer.

Pick the right cooler
The cooler itself is important. According to 100 Days of Real Food, your best bet is a high-quality, thick-sided, hard cooler. It’s better at insulating and keeping your foods and drinks cold than soft-sided versions. This is especially important if you’ll be chilling items for a long time or it’s particularly hot out. From there, you may also want to consider the size that will fit everything you want to bring and features that will make it more convenient, like cup holders or wheels.

Wash before you go
Giving your cooler a good wash before and after your trip is a good idea. This ensures that there’s no dirt or bacteria that could make its way onto your soda cans or food packaging. You should definitely wash your cooler after transporting raw meat, poultry or fish in it.

Choose containers carefully
You can’t just choose any old piece of Tupperware or plastic bag to store your edibles in. Your containers should be watertight so they won’t let melting ice or juices from other items inside. Do your research into which brands are the best, and test them out for yourself before you pack for a big trip.

Prechill
Coleman pointed out that the foods and drinks you’re planning to pack in your cooler should be chilled before you put them in. That way, the ice you add will last longer, since it won’t be wasted trying to cool down warm items. You should prechill the cooler itself too to extend the life of your ice. Just put a thin layer of ice cubes over the bottom a couple of hours before you plan to pack the cooler.

Make your own ice packs
Ice cubes are all well and good, but bigger chunks of ice take longer to melt and will help keep your foods and drinks cool. Make your own ice packs by filling up plastic bottles or milk jugs with water and freezing them the night before you pack them into the cooler. If you’re bringing bottles of water to drink along on your trip, freeze them beforehand so they’ll be ultra cold and will help chill everything else as they melt.

Separate foods from drinks
Many people want drinks more often than they want food, which means a cooler with beverages will be opened and closed a lot, which can increase the temperature and make the ice melt faster. To keep your foods cooler for longer, pack them in a separate container away from the drinks.

Go in order
Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, wrote for HomeFoodSafety.org that you should always pack items in the reverse order that you’re going to use them. This way, what you eat last will still be cold when you serve it. Raw meat, poultry and fish are exceptions, though. Their juices can drip onto other items, so put these in the cooler first.

Fill it up
What’s Cooking America noted that a full cooler will stay colder for longer than a cooler that’s only partially filled. Don’t hesitate to bring extra drinks – especially water – since hydration is important. If bringing more food isn’t an option, fill up the extra space with ice packs or additional ice.

Add ice last
Cold air travels down, so it makes the most sense to add your ice on top of the items you’re bringing along. If you’re bringing drinks, however, you might want to add a thin layer of ice on the bottom so your beverages are super cold.

Use rock salt
Woodchuck, makers of hard cider, recommend adding rock salt on top of your ice once your cooler is packed. The source noted that when you add rock salt to your ice, it lowers the freezing/melting point. When the ice starts melting, the salt mixes with it and makes the water colder than the frozen ice. This lengthens the life of your ice and keeps the water super cold.

Store it smart
If you can, it’s best to find a cool, shady spot for your cooler. Don’t just leave it in the trunk of your car or in the hot sun on the beach. Place it underneath an umbrella, canopy, tent or tree to keep it cooler for longer.

Do you have any more cooler packing tips?